Profile: National Commission on Terrorism
National Commission on Terrorism was a participant or observer in the following events:
Cover of the report of the National Commission on Terrorism. [Source: Diane Publishing Co.]The National Commission on Terrorism releases its report warning the US against the growing threat of terrorism. The bipartisan commission, headed by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, was created by Congress in 1999. Bremer, a career diplomat, has long been involved in counterterrorism policy-making, and served as the ambassador at large for counterterrorism during the Reagan administration. The report starts with a quote from Thomas C. Schelling’s foreword to Roberta Wohlstetter’s book, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, explaining why governments are often ill-prepared for surprise attacks. It says the US faces a more lethal and unpredictable enemy: “Today’s terrorists seek to inflict mass casualties, and they are attempting to do so both overseas and on American soil. They are less dependent on state sponsorship and are, instead, forming loose, transnational affiliations based on religious or ideological affinity and a common hatred of the United States.” The report warns that while the number of terrorist incidents has gone down, the number of casualties per attack has increased. Moreover, religiously motivated groups, such as Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, present a new challenge for intelligence agencies. They are less hierarchical, have a variety of sources of funding and support, and are therefore “more difficult to predict, track, and penetrate.” In response, the US must pursue an aggressive policy to gather intelligence on terrorist groups, sanction countries sponsoring terrorists, and prepare for a catastrophic terrorist attack on the homeland, possibly one involving weapons of mass destruction. The report also calls for monitoring the immigration status of foreign students. [National Commisson on Terrorism, 6/2000; New York Times, 6/4/2000; NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, 6/6/2000; New York Times, 9/12/2001]
Paul Bremer, who will be appointed the US administrator of Iraq in 2003, says in a speech that the Bush administration is “paying no attention” to terrorism. Bremer says, “What they will do is stagger along until there’s a major incident and then suddenly say, ‘Oh my God, shouldn’t we be organized to deal with this?’” He speaks shortly after chairing the National Commission on Terrorism, a bipartisan body formed during the Clinton administration. [Associated Press, 4/29/2004; CBS News, 4/30/2004; Associated Press, 5/3/2004]
Suzanne Spaulding, a former counsel for the CIA, the Senate and House intelligence commission, and executive director of the National Terrorism Commission from 1999 through 2000, writes an op-ed criticizing the Bush administration for its domestic surveillance program. She writes that the three main sources of oversight and restraint on Bush’s unfettered efforts to monitor US citizens—Congress, the judiciary, and the American people—have failed to halt what she calls “this extraordinary exercise of presidential power.” Spaulding, who will testify along similar lines before the Senate over a year later (see April 11, 2007), writes, “Ironically, if it is ultimately determined that this domestic surveillance program reflects the exercise of unchecked power in contravention of law, it will wind up weakening the presidency. Once again, we will confront the challenge of restoring Americans’ faith in the rule of law and our system of checks and balances.” The pretense of oversight by the administration, in providing limited and perhaps misleading briefings on the program only to the so-called “Gang of Eight” Congressional leaders, is superficial and ineffective, she writes; the entire process “effectively eliminates the possibility of any careful oversight.” She notes that because of the severe restrictions both in the information doled out to these Congressional leaders, and their strict prohibition on discussing the information with anyone else, even other intelligence panel members, “[i]t is virtually impossible for individual members of Congress, particularly members of the minority party, to take any effective action if they have concerns about what they have heard in one of these briefings. It is not realistic to expect them, working alone, to sort through complex legal issues, conduct the kind of factual investigation required for true oversight and develop an appropriate legislative response.” Congressional oversight is key to retaining the trust of the US citizenry, she writes, and adds that that particular principle was well understood at the CIA while she was there. Oversight “is vital for a secret agency operating in a democracy. True oversight helps clarify the authority under which intelligence professionals operate. And when risky operations are revealed, it is important to have members of Congress reassure the public that they have been overseeing the operation. The briefings reportedly provided on the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program reflect, instead, a ‘check the box’ mentality—allowing administration officials to claim that they had informed Congress without having really achieved the objectives of oversight.” While those few members of Congress are given little real information, the judiciary, particularly the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), is cut out of the process entirely. “Instead of going to a judge on the secret court that was specifically established to authorize foreign intelligence surveillance inside the United States, we are told that an NSA shift supervisor was able to sign off on the warrantless surveillance of Americans,” she writes. “That’s neither a check nor a balance. The primary duty of the NSA shift supervisor, who essentially works for the president, is to collect intelligence. The task of the judge is to ensure that the legal standards set out in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) have been met. Which one has stronger independence to say no, if no needs to be said? The objectives of the surveillance program, as described in news reports, seem laudable. The government should be running to ground the contacts listed in a suspected terrorist’s cell phone, for example. What is troubling is that this domestic spying is being done in apparent contravention of FISA, for reasons that still are not clear.” In her piece she takes issue with the Bush administration’s insistence that its surveillance program is legal and necessary. She makes the following case:
Specious Arguments to Duck FISA Court - The argument that the FISA Court is too slow to respond to immediate needs for domestic surveillance is specious, she says. “FISA anticipates situations in which speed is essential. It allows the government to start eavesdropping without a court order and to keep it going for a maximum of three days. And while the FISA application process is often burdensome in routine cases, it can also move with remarkable speed when necessary, with applications written and approved in just a few hours.” Instead, she says that the Bush administration must have dodged FISC because their wiretaps didn’t meet FISA standards of probable cause. Since FISC is staffed by judges hand-picked by conservative then-Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, “who presumably felt that they had the right temperament and expertise to understand the national security imperatives as well as the need to protect civil liberties,” and since FISC has granted all but four of the more than 5,645 requests for wiretaps and surveillance made by the administration since 2001, to argue that FISC is unresponsive is simply wrong-headed. And, she notes, if the administration felt that FISA’s standards were too strict, it could have moved to amend the law to allow more leniency in obtaining such warrants. It has not done so since the passage of the 2001 Patriot Act. She writes, “The administration reportedly did not think it could get an amendment without exposing details of the program. But this is not the first time the intelligence community has needed a change in the law to allow it to undertake sensitive intelligence activities that could not be disclosed. In the past, Congress and the administration have worked together to find a way to accomplish what was needed. It was never previously considered an option to simply decide that finding a legislative solution was too hard and that the executive branch could just ignore the law rather than fix it.”
No Justification for Keeping Program Secret - In addition, the administration has consistently failed to make a case for keeping the domestic wiretapping policy secret for four years. US-designated terrorist groups already know that the government listens to their cell phone conversations whenever possible, and they are well aware of the various publicly known programs to search through millions of electronic communications, such as the NSA’s Echelon program (see April 4, 2001). “So what do the terrorists learn from a general public discussion about the legal authority being relied upon to target their conversations?” she asks. “Presumably very little. What does the American public lose by not having the public discussion? We lose the opportunity to hold our elected leaders accountable for what they do on our behalf.”
Assertions that Program Authorized by Congress Fallacious - The argument advanced by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that says the program does not violate the law because Congress’s post-9/11 authorization of force against terrorists gives the administration the right to circumvent FISA is equally specious, she argues. “FISA does provide for criminal penalties if surveillance is conducted under color of law ‘except as authorized by statute.’ This is a reference to either FISA or the criminal wiretap statute. A resolution, such as the Use of Force resolution, does not provide statutory authority. Moreover, FISA specifically provides for warrantless surveillance for up to 15 days after a declaration of war. Why would Congress include that provision if a mere Use of Force resolution could render FISA inapplicable? The law clearly states that the criminal wiretap statute and FISA are ‘the exclusive means by which electronic surveillance…and the interception of domestic wire, oral, and electronic communications may be conducted.’ If these authorities are exclusive, there is no other legal authority that can authorize warrantless surveillance. Courts generally will not view such a clear statutory statement as having been overruled by a later congressional action unless there is an equally clear indication that Congress intended to do that.” Therefore, by any legal standard, the administration’s program is, apparently, illegal.
No Inherent Presidential Authority - The ultimate argument by Bush officials, that the president has some sort of inherent authority as commander-in-chief to authorize illegal wiretaps, is the same groundless legal argument recently used to justify the use of torture by US intelligence and law enforcement agents (see December 28, 2001). That argument was withdrawn, Spaulding notes, after it became publicly known. While the courts have not specifically ruled on this particular argument, Spaulding notes that the Supreme Court refused to recognize then-President Harry Truman’s attempt to seize control of the nation’s steel mills to avert a possible strike during the Korean War. The Supreme Court ruled “that the president’s inherent authority is at its weakest in areas where Congress has already legislated. It ruled that to find inherent presidential authority when Congress has explicitly withheld that authority—as it has in FISA—‘is not merely to disregard in a particular instance the clear will of Congress. It is to disrespect the whole legislative process and the constitutional division of authority between president and Congress.’” She notes that in 2004, the Supreme Court rejected the argument for unchecked presidential power in the Hamdi case (see June 28, 2004), with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor writing for the court, “We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens. …Whatever power the United States Constitution envisions for the Executive in its exchanges with… enemy organizations in times of conflict, it most assuredly envisions a role for all three branches when individual liberties are at stake.” Spaulding concludes, “The rule of law and our system of checks and balances are not a source of weakness or a luxury of peace. As O’Connor reminded us in Hamdi, ‘It is during our most challenging and uncertain moments…that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad.’” [Washington Post, 12/25/2005]
Entity Tags: Sandra Day O’Connor, William Rehnquist, USA Patriot Act, Suzanne Spaulding, National Security Agency, US Supreme Court, Harry S. Truman, Alberto R. Gonzales, “Gang of Eight”, National Commission on Terrorism, Central Intelligence Agency, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Echelon, Bush administration (43)
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
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